From Peace Corps service to careers in science

From Peace Corps to National Science Foundation
By Peace Corps
April 6, 2016

The National Science Foundation (NSF) blog interviewed two scientists, Dr. Theresa Good and Dr. Stacy Kelley, who both work in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at NSF. Both have successfully completed science PhDs and Peace Corps service. 

How did you hear about Peace Corps? 

Dr. Theresa Good: I am the Deputy Division Director of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). When I was a graduate student at Cornell, doing a project on the mathematical modeling of E. coli back in the early days of systems biology, Peace Corps came on my radar. Cornell had some programs that seemed to attract returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). It was hard not to romanticize about the idea of joining Peace Corps especially when you heard RPCVs’ stories. 

Dr. Stacy Kelley: I am a Biologist in the Division of MCB. My husband first introduced me to Peace Corps. He heard stories from RPCV friends and his parents, who are from the Philippines, a nation with strong ties to Peace Corps. We both believe in public service, and loved the idea of living overseas. Some may see it as idealism, but we knew Peace Corps was right for us. The only question was when? I was in graduate school, teaching and conducting PhD lab research, with my sights set on a fulfilling career in academia. Stepping off of that well-defined path was frightening, so we talked with a Peace Corps recruiter to make a more informed decision. 

What was the reason you decided to join the Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with my research, or if I really wanted a PhD. As I was searching around, not sure of the relevance of my research, it seemed to me that while I was trying to sort out what I wanted to do, I could do something that “made the world a better place.” I never thought I was altruistic; I was just trying to find myself in a socially acceptable way. 

I had suggested to the Peace Corps recruiter that as a chemical engineer specializing on growing bacteria in a bioreactor, I should be able to teach people how to grow fish in a pond. But instead, Peace Corps asked me to teach biology and chemistry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It seemed like an adventure! But, I also had no idea what I was getting into. 

Dr. Stacy Kelley: Talking with a recruiter convinced me Peace Corps was the right choice, so we filled out an application. The application and selection process was different back then. For example, it took us weeks to fill out the paper application, and now you can do it online in about an hour. Where we would be living and working was a surprise, but now you can request a specific country and position. We knew it took longer for married couples to be placed, so we applied and thought we would just fit it in to my scientific career once we were accepted. We had no idea that more than two years later, we would be asked to serve… just as I was about to graduate with my PhD. We can still remember the excitement of opening the envelope that said we were serving in Costa Rica

Dr. Theresa Good (far right) with other RPCVs in Zaire
Dr. Theresa Good (far right) with other Volunteers in Zaire.

What are the professional and personal benefits of Peace Corps service? 

Dr. Theresa Good: I discovered I loved to teach and that I was good at it. There is something magical about that moment when students “get it,” when that the light bulb goes on. My village lacked electricity and running water. I will never forget when my students did an experiment for the first time in a chemistry lab with water we got from a stream using donated materials that were tucked away for years in a supply room. After adding metal to a solution, they noticed bubbles evolving and came running to me saying (in French, not English), “Miss, miss, is this a reaction?”… and they finally got what they were learning. Wow! 

I also discovered how resourceful I was – you can’t actually survive for two years in the DRC without being resourceful. Being resourceful is a skill that translates to all areas of life. 

Jim Olds, the Assistant Director of Biological Sciences, asks me periodically about my resilience as a leader. Peace Corps is a great opportunity to practice resilience – at least in my village, you never knew what to expect – so having a sense of humor and the ability to adapt (and thrive) in the midst of change – was important. 

Finally, diversity is an important value at the NSF – we value diverse opinions, people who can work with diverse people, and people who come from diverse environments. 

After living for two years in an environment where I was the one who was different (the only white woman who some of the people in my village had ever seen), I gained a whole new appreciation for diversity. I also gained an appreciation for working with students from different cultures (whose English language skills might not match their intellectually ability in their technical area). I spent two years teaching in French (a language I had learned in high school, but was not particularly good at when I first got to the Democratic Republic of Congo), so I knew first-hand what it was like to be “really smart, but have language skills of a 5-year-old.” 

I found by becoming more resourceful and resilient in Peace Corps, I became a better researcher in graduate school in Wisconsin. Resourcefulness and resiliency are both important skills in science when experiments fail or your proposal gets rejected. Really, when something “hard” happens now, I know it really isn’t that hard compared to some of the other things I’ve been through in Peace Corps service. 

Dr. Stacy Kelley: In Peace Corps Costa Rica, I served in Youth Development working with youth, adults, and communities to improve the social, economic, and leadership opportunities available to youth. My husband served in Community Economic Development helping small businesses, teaching business and computing classes, and developing entrepreneurs. Though my work was not directly related to science, I found ways to incorporate my love of science into everything I did. For example, during graduate school I taught college students about HIV infection in a lecture hall in English, and in Peace Corps, I taught high school students about HIV infection on a soccer field in Spanish. I used my scientific data collection and evaluation skills to co-create an online, monitoring and evaluation system that are still being used. My husband used science in his community project creating robotic tractors for agriculture. As a married couple serving in the same community, we often worked together on secondary projects including science fairs, murals, and teaching English and computing. These experiences uniquely round out my scientific resume. 

After serving in the Peace Corps, I have terrific examples for job interviews of overcoming challenges, working in a multicultural setting, developing and managing small- or large-scale projects, multitasking, and most of all – resourcefully innovating MacGyver-style with whatever you have or can find to make everything you need. Life in Peace Corps is an adventure – difficult, exciting, and filled with change – requiring me to find the best in myself and adapt quickly to challenges such as power or water outages, cold showers, long bus rides, earthquakes, or new social norms. I also found I was stronger than I knew – overcoming the personal sacrifices of missing my brother’s wedding, aunt’s funeral, and nephew’s birth. My husband and I are now more resilient – better able to make mistakes, laugh at ourselves, and handle challenging situations with greater ease.

Peace Corps Volunteers receive benefits and professional development. One of the biggest professional benefits for me was becoming part of an expansive network of diverse RPCV peers who generously help newly minted RPCVs find their place in the world. The training and experience you receive conducting data management, project design and management, grant writing, and managing budgets, combined with unique experiences that change your perspective on the world, are also highly valued by potential employers, including Employers of National Service who have committed to hiring RPCVs. If you are interested in working for the U.S. government, RPCVs are awarded one year of noncompetitive eligibility (NCE) status that makes the hiring process a little easier. In fact, I used my NCE status to obtain my current position at the NSF. Being an RPCV, you also have the ability to apply for high-impact, short-term assignments called Peace Corps Response. Those with a medical doctor or nursing background can apply for Global Health Service Partnership positions. 

Overwhelmingly for me, the benefits of Peace Corps service were deeply personal. Costa Rica is a beautiful country often visited by U.S. tourists for vacation. Though the natural resources of Costa Rica are undeniably rich and biodiverse, and we felt grateful to have the opportunity to live close to nature, the very best part of Costa Rica for me was the people. Costa Ricans (Ticos) are caring, helpful, tranquil, fun-loving people who treat strangers like family. I found myself smiling and laughing more living in the Costa Rican highly social, collaborative environment. I was humbled daily at the generosity and graciousness of Ticos. I woke up energized to explore, make friends, and create life-changing experiences that empowered youth and adults to come together, use or find skills they didn’t know they had, and pursue dreams they didn’t even know were possible. I slowed down – experiencing Pura Vida – and savored sunsets, coffee during cafecito, and long conversations. I learned constantly, spoke a new language, lived with less, danced, painted, and played soccer. My husband and I have countless, priceless memories of heartfelt moments with so many people – from those we only interacted with for a few moments while waiting for a bus on a dusty road, to those we saw every day walking up green, mango tree-covered mountains in the hot sun. In Peace Corps, we found a second family, a new home, and are now finding it harder to answer the question “Where are you from?” All this from taking a road less traveled, a non-traditional path towards a career in science. 

Any advice you would give to someone who is interested in science and Peace Corps? 

Dr. Theresa Good: There are so many more opportunities to serve in the Peace Corps now than there were in the '80s. I was one of the few (only) chemical engineers that joined the Peace Corps – and while teaching chemistry was somewhat relevant, there are more relevant projects available to Peace Corps Volunteers now. The Peace Corps is a great way to get some experience – but also grow personally and in leadership skills you might not have the opportunity to use in other “entry level” positions. So – if you find an opportunity that fits, are willing to explore a more circuitous path, and you have a sense of humor and a sense of adventure – go for it! 

This post first appeared on the National Science Foundation blog.

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